Visions of an ideal, intentionally designed society are at least as old as the writings of Plato (c. 428-348 b.c.e.), but only in modern times have there been efforts to realize those visions through social movements and political efforts. Following the French Revolution, socialism developed as one of the most inspiring and influential programs of social and economic planning. Socialism, as Joshua Muravchik recognizes in this new history, took on several forms, but all were united by the ideas that cooperation, rather than competition, could and should be the driving force of human productive activity and that all members of a society could and should share equally in the fruits of production.
Muravchik recounts the history of socialism through a series of biographical vignettes. He begins with François Noël “Gracchus” Babeuf, who is justly recognized as the father of modern socialism. Babeuf, a pamphleteer and agitator during the French Revolution, organized a group of plotters known as the Conspiracy of Equals. Their goal was to create a society in which private property and money would be abolished and all people would live in completely equal circumstances. This would not be accomplished merely by changing the social system, but by changing people. Babeuf and his collaborators intended to have the state take control of each individual at birth in order to educate selfless citizens. This plan of remaking society by remaking people, in Muravchik’s view, became central to socialism. It was also, as he suggests throughout the book, why socialism fell. Humans beings were not readily redesigned.
While Babeuf began a tradition of social change through conspiracy and violence, the Scot Robert Owen pioneered a more humane and voluntary path to utopia. Owen, who reportedly coined the word “socialism,” achieved public recognition after he bought a textile mill at New Lanark, Scotland. Reacting against the horrific conditions common in factories in his day, Owen reduced working hours, used authoritarian but gentle methods of evaluating and rewarding works, and attempted to control and direct workers’ lives in the company-owned village. Had he ended his reforming career at New Lanark, Owen might today be regarded as an early paternalistic capitalist, a forerunner of Henry Ford and George Pullman. Instead, he moved to America and in 1825 founded the famous communal settlement at New Harmony, Indiana. As a model for idealists, New Harmony became legendary, but as a place where people actually lived and worked, it was a failure. Since no one received any special benefit from production when everything was equally shared, community members did not produce what they needed. Since goods were distributed by committees, there were shortages even of the goods that were available. Muravchik argues that Owen’s failed efforts inspired rather than discouraged socialism because his goals seemed so lofty. However, the experiences of communes such as New Harmony suggested that utopia could not be created by forming isolated communities within the existing society. Instead, the whole of society would have to change in order to make an environment favorable to the reshaping of human nature.
Socialists found what appeared to be a practical and realistic program for changing the whole of society in the scientific socialism of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Muravchik’s chapter on Marx and Engels is one of his most interesting because he makes a good case for the argument that Engels was the true originator of most of the ideas known as Marxism and was the primary author of The Communist Manifesto (1848). Whoever deserves the greater share of the credit, however, Marxist theory became the basis of a systematic ideology for change.
As a scientific theory, Marxism offered predictions as well as interpretation. However, predictions can be dangerous because events may not bear them out. Marx and Engels had maintained that workers in a capitalist society would see their living standards steadily deteriorate and that entrepreneurs who were continually reduced in number by competition would produce more and more goods that could not be sold to the impoverished majority. As a result, workers would take control of industrial society and...
(The entire section is 1736 words.)